That’s what I felt as I stood on Mt. Baldy’s trail looking ahead at a portion of it that seemed to warrant instant death.
Months ago I had decided to join a group of co-workers from my previous job on their quest to conquer Mt. Whitney, for the third time. Whitney is the highest peak in the continental United States and this group of guys was determined to get a member of their group, who had suffered altitude sickness each time before, to the top. They were experienced hikers and who better to join than those who had braved these trails before. This group of jovial, but cautious men, could help assure my safe, successful, and entertaining rise to glory. How cool would it be to be to say that I had hiked one of the world’s highest summits? How great it would feel to transform my body with training based workouts meant to prepare me for a 12-hour hike on less oxygen? At over 14,000 feet Mt. Whitney is a challenge by all accounts.
“It’s one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done,” said the leader of our hiking group. This didn’t scare me. I was in.
We started training in Santa Clarita one early morning in May. By 7 AM we had hike 4 miles straight up hill, with 8 to go. If I was to compare this to an incline on a treadmill I’d say that the entire trail was at 15% or more. We were done by noon that day, but our muscles were sore for many after. I was in so much pain that I had to ice my inner thigh for hours. I couldn’t get my dogs around the block without crumbling onto the sidewalk in laughter. It was a good hurt. The kind that reminds you how miraculous the human body is. It responds to our demands, punishes us with pain, then bounces back stronger, ready to perform.
I was inspired and excited and ready for more. Weeks later, over 4th of July at my family’s cabin in the Sierras, I made it a point to hike up the mountains on our property every day. After all, we were already at 5,000 feet, which could help prepare my body for Whitney’s 14,000.
Months went by and I missed the first Baldy hike. This meant that I’d be a bit behind when I joined the group for their Baldy expedition in late August. Truth be told, the only thing that made me nervous about this hike was the early morning wake-up call. I am not, nor ever will be, a morning person. My husband, who I decided to drag along for the adventure, and I left our home at 3:30 AM (you heard me) to reach a park and ride off the 210 by 4:00 Am. From there we’d follow the group to the base of Baldy. Of course, as is often the case when you have an important event to get up for, I hardly slept a wink.
Yet we made it. Our back packs full, our hiking poles ready for action (absolutely required for long, hard hikes like Baldy), and our eyes adjusting to the dark. The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour.
I started strong like I always do, me and the hiking leader ahead of the pack, talking the darkness away, as we sped up the fire trail. Most people take the lift to the lodge on Baldy then go from there, but not those serious about training for Whitney.
Once we were past the lodge, after a quick breakfast break, hubby and I fell behind. We had been hiking straight up hill for 2.5 hours now and I was feeling it, but I had no plans to give up. “Let’s try to catch them,” I said, as the trail began to narrow.
A Narrow Trail between Fear & Sanity
This is when the seed of fear began to grow in my consciousness like a tumor. I couldn’t ignore the gorgeous view that displayed peaks and valleys to the left, the lodge far below, as the chair lift creaked to life hauling casual hikers up the mountain. I couldn’t ignore the breathtaking views to the right, miles and miles of the Angeles National Forest illuminated by morning sunlight, the gentlest form of fire. I also couldn’t ignore the fact that one wrong move on this trail would mean a fall to the end. My heart would stop beating. My bones would shatter inside me mixing with tissue and blood, until all that was left of me was a sticky paste. Aside from this goo of girl, what would remain of my life? Some fledgling blogs, a half written novel, a string of work outs that meant nothing to now pulverized muscles, a devastated husband, some confused dogs who’d be sure that every person walking by in the hallway was me coming home. I could go on. Listing what I’d leave behind. And it brings tears to my eyes even now. I’m not proud of all that I’ve done and all that I haven’t so far in 31 years, but I love it. I love it all. I’m not finished yet. I’m not ready to die.
These were the thoughts that paralyzed me. I couldn’t do it. I watched as our group disappeared around a bend in the trail on an adjacent peak. An older man approached as I sat on the trail, clinging to the rocks for dear life.
“Forgive me,” I said. “But I’m terrified.” I was huddled in a ball like you might if someone were pointing a gun at you.
“I don’t blame you,” he answered. “I’m terrified as well. But I keep going.” He jogged past us, spits of dust and rock kicked up by a slow, tentative jog toward the sky. This wasn’t even the scary part. It was coming.
I watched as his body got smaller ahead of us. He was wearing a turquoise shirt that stood out against the looming shadows of grey rock.
“If that old man can do it,” my husband said. “We can too! C’mon baby.”
I watched in silence, shaking in fear. The man neared the part of the trail that had stopped me in this spot. From where I sat it looked like a simple line sliced into the side of the mountain. Jagged boulders created a wall of nothing easy to cling to on the right. And to the left? Death. At least an 8,000 foot free fall beckoning the suicidal to fly home to God.
The old man and his bright teal shirt didn’t help. As he approached this portion of the path he slowed and clung to the side of the rock like a spider on the bathroom sink. I was sure mother nature was about to turn on the water, washing him away forever. He inched by slowly and with each step he brought me closer to my decision.
“I’m NOT doing it,” I announced, plucking my backpack from the ground and standing up decidedly. To do otherwise, to force my self forward, would be insane. “Nothing you can say will change my mind.”
Husband pleaded with me for a few minutes. He who had complained about all of this. He who had envisioned a lazy Saturday spent laying on the beach, was now enlivened by it. He wasn’t afraid. Nope, not at all. He was itching to keep going in fact. His strength was encouraging and did make me think, but as soon as I considered turning around and facing that portion of the trail again, my palms began to sweat and my chest to tighten like my body itself was trying to strangle the air out me.
“For what?” I said to my patient man as we made our way down. “SO that I can brag that I’ve climbed a really high mountain? So that I can conquer this fear of heights I never knew I had? If I’m this afraid. If I’m this unsteady. It just isn’t worth it.”
He couldn’t disagree. Climbing Mt. Whitney wasn’t his idea.
To Fear is Human
It’s going on three weeks since I decided that facing this particular fear just wasn’t worth it to me. With this decision has come the sad realization that if I can’t conquer Baldy, I won’t be able to conquer Whitney either. In weighing all this, I began to wonder if fear is running my life. So I made a list of the things I’m afraid of. I thought deeply about which are worth facing. Here’s a sampling of what I came up with:
- I am afraid that everyone’s gonna burn my novel because it’s so bad. Worth it to keep writing? Yes! I’ll take that risk. I’ll face that fear. Of course I want it to be good, but I can’t let fear hold me back from doing something I truly love.
- I am afraid that I’ll get fat and ugly as I age. Worth the worry? Nope. This is just plain stupid. 30-minutes of cardio a day keeps the fat away! Besides there’s an entire industry built on helping people combat aging and weight gain. And it’s all up to me. Good choices can keep that fear in check. Yet, aging is inevitable (and the preferred alternative to a premature death), but doing it gracefully is more about how you think and feel than how you look. The most beautiful people, of all ages, have a light that shines from within.
- I am afraid that I won’t be able to get pregnant, since admittedly we’ve been trying for several months now. Worth it to worry? Yes, probably. I’m over 30 and a woman’s fertility begins to decline at this age. Plus they say that if you haven’t gotten pregnant after 6-months you may be sub-fertile! Yikes! But rather than worrying about it, I’ll do all I can and write about it in the process.
- I am afraid that the big one is going to come any minute, destroying us all. Worth it to stress? Probably not. Especially because it’s entirely out of my control. And it’s entirely out of yours. Accidents never happen when you expect them to. Life and its catastrophes, occur when you’re making other plans.
Just as I could go on with the list of things I love about life, I could exhaust you with the things I’m afraid of. Chemicals in food. Pollution. Political corruption. But there’s only so much you can do before you’re paralyzed. Yes, fear is natural. It’s as part of being human, as is hunger and the need for sleep. Fear comes in subtle forms as well, ones that don’t involve a mental breakdown on the side of a cliff. It can be good! It’s what motivates us to change. It’s what inspires us to move cross-country to start a new life. It’s what moves us to take risks, to dream big. We’re either afraid of what will happen if we do or afraid of what will if we don’t.
I’m coming to terms with my decision to give up on Mt. Whitney. After all, there are other fears to face and other mountains to climb. And only I can decide what’s worth it.
What are you afraid of? What fears are worth facing in your life?